In the midst of the 2008 economic meltdown, Marxist geographer David Harvey remarked that “There are currently masses of productive capacity lying unused, side by side with masses of unemployed labor, in a world that is full of unmet human needs… how stupid is that?”
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and, once again, a global economic order on the precipice of meltdown, we might reformulate Harvey’s point as follows: There are, right now, massive hoards of technology, resources, medicines, and buildings lying unused, side by side with masses of untapped human talent, in a world full of sick and vulnerable people in desperate need of care.
To say that this state of affairs is stupid is a vast understatement. It is as cruel as it is irrational.
It doesn’t take any training in economics to see that, as a society, the appropriate goal we should be seeking in a unified fashion is saving as many lives as possible. In fact, aiming at any other goal—bailing out big banks, propping up corporate profits, insulating investors from losses, doing the bidding of the big drug companies and insurance companies—in a context like this seems fundamentally wrong, inhuman even.
It also doesn’t take any training in economics to see that the most efficient means of realizing this goal is not being taken advantage of in the slightest. Let’s be clear: this is the richest society in the history of the planet, with huge stores of resources, technology, know-how and human talent. If all of these were mobilized in a rational, unified way to try to meet this crisis head-on, we could save millions of lives that, as of right now, stand to be extinguished by this horrible crisis.
There is a name for this obvious solution: democratic economic planning.
To be specific: the industrial capacity of the United States is immense and right now there are—and have been, for more than a month—massive shortages of key goods, such as ventilators, surgical masks, COVID-19 testing kits, and so forth. The profit-driven “free market” has utterly and spectacularly failed to address these shortages. If we had a democratic economic plan to deal with the crisis, we could immediately begin retrofitting manufacturing facilities to begin producing massive quantities of new ventilators, hospital supplies, masks and testing kits.
The U.S. has an estimated 900,000 hospital beds and a population of more than 327 million. When we talk about “flattening the curve,” the assumption is that the curve must stay below a predetermined line that is defined by the current capacity of our health care system. But what about raising that line? What about massively expanding the capacity of our system to treat people who are sick and do everything and anything possible to save as many lives as possible? This course of action is not just a possibility, but increasingly a necessity.
That this key point is hardly even a part of the conversation is striking—it shows how weak, irrational and inefficient our market-based, profit-based system is in the face of a humanitarian crisis unlike any we’ve ever experienced.
The basic idea of socialism is that the economy should be under the democratic control of the people who make it run. The basic idea of capitalism is that the economy is controlled by a small class of wealthy owners who perform little or no productive labor whatsoever.
In a global crisis like the one we are facing today, democratic planning becomes a question of survival.
To deal with this crisis, the population needs to have the keys to the economy. Right now, under capitalism, the capitalist class has the keys—but there’s no one at the steering wheel. They are too weak, too risk-averse, too greedy to even come together as one and save even themselves. We’re heading toward a cliff, and all they care about is their own individual bottom-line. They are individually buckling down and hoarding their wealth in the vain hope that it will save themselves as everyone else perishes.
To survive, we need to take the keys away from them. We need to take the wheel into our own hands and steer the economy in the direction it obviously needs to go: toward saving as many lives as we can and meeting the human needs of all as efficiently as we can.
That is socialism in a nutshell: a democratically planned economy that prioritizes human need instead of corporate greed. The time to fight for it is now.